No Lessons from Fiction October 8, 2009

No Lessons from Fiction

This is a post by Jesse Galef.

Why do we pretend that we can learn some great truth by studying works of fiction?  In school I was always made to analyze and overanalyze novels.  When their elusive meaning was found, it was handed to us as if we should treat it with reverence.

I hope to use VorJack’s interesting post at UnreasonableFaith as a jumping-off point.  Starting with one of my favorite fantasy authors, Robert Jordan, he notes that people often find connections and messages in works of fiction that were not necessarily intended by the author:

Does it matter that these meanings aren’t original? What does it signify when you find a meaning or an idea in a work, but the creator did not put it there? Is the meaning not “real”? Imagine a connect-the-dots puzzle, where you find a way to make a Celtic knot-work design when the author intended it to be a giraffe. Is each pattern equally valid, or is the creator’s pattern the only accurate solution?

The only reason this question seems difficult is that we have an ambiguous uses of the words ‘valid’ and ‘accurate’.  Only the picture of a giraffe is an “accurate” solution to the question: What message was the author intending to impart?  Either the giraffe or the knot is an accurate solution to the question: What recognizable shapes can be made from these dots?  Defining ‘valid’ and ‘accurate’ toward those purposes will clear up the apparent problem.

But even if we infer the particular message intended by the author, we need to be careful not to give it too much weight.  It’s merely one person’s opinion communicated through the medium of a novel.  Just because an author describes relationships, society, or human nature working a certain way doesn’t mean that he’s correct.

Unfortunately, we have a bias to believe that ideas are more likely if we hear them vividly and frequently described.  Dystopias are a prime example, often with serious consequences:

In a new piece in Commentary magazine, Jay Lefkowitz — who advised Bush on stem cells — reveals how the President formulated his 2001 policy. While Bush heard from a variety of groups on both sides of the issue, the turning point appeared to come when Lefkowitz read from Aldous Huxley’s fictional novel, Brave New World, and scared Bush:

A few days later, I brought into the Oval Office my copy of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s 1932 anti-utopian novel, and as I read passages aloud imagining a future in which humans would be bred in hatcheries, a chill came over the room.

“We’re tinkering with the boundaries of life here,” Bush said when I finished. “We’re on the edge of a cliff. And if we take a step off the cliff, there’s no going back. Perhaps we should only take one step at a time.”  [Emphasis in original]

Aldous Huxley had a vision of how society interacts with technological advances.  He thought such a scenario would lead to hatcheries, deception, and nightmarish conditions.  That possibility scared Bush into a position on stem-cell research.  So?  Huxley has no particular authority on the subject.  Someone else could come along and write a story about a world in which technology creates excellent living conditions!  If someone had read that story to Bush, maybe he would have gladly supported research.

Of course, authors are usually not even trying to paint an accurate depiction of reality – they’re choosing unrepresentative samples that are more pleasing to read.  How many war novels/movies are there about the brave soldier defying all odds and defeating the enemy?  The very phrase “defying all odds” implies that there are far more soldiers who do the same thing and get summarily killed.  We don’t see movies about them very often, because their stories aren’t as fun, exciting, and inspiring.  That’s why I particularly appreciated Terry Pratchett’s dedication of his book “Guards! Guards!“:

They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No-one ever asks them if they wanted to. This book is dedicated to those fine men.

The world is full of brave soldiers who die, true love that does not conquer all, and unpleasant people who go on to enjoy long, happy lives.

Given that we might not be understanding the author’s intention, and even if we do it’s only one point of view, and that that point of view does not necessarily reflect reality – indeed is usually chosen to misrepresent reality – what lessons can we and should we learn from fiction?

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  • CybrgnX

    Well I have learn many things from fictional novels. Most of them SciFi. But not in the way it is presented here. The in depth analysis of hidden meaning is BS and reminds me of the Xtians reading the BuyBull and getting all sorts of hidden shit. Nonsense!
    in one book the statement of the character was ….No criminal is successful without the willing cooperation of the victim. That sounded so silly that I started researching how crime works and pays for the criminal and what did the victim do before, during and after the crime. It was really interesting and I found out it was true. It does NOT mean the victim caused it or the criminal is not guilty.
    But this did not come from anything hidden in the text its just a part of the book that got my attention and promoted more research into the idea. So yes I learn from novels.

  • w00t

    All language is ultimately ambiguous, fiction just more so. Scant little in our daily experience can be reduced to unambiguous fact; it is full of conjecture, interpretation and, yes, even (sometimes creative) misunderstanding. So, we may as well ask what the point is in talking to each other at all. We’re always misinterpreted and misinterpreting each other. But I suspect our minds were designed this way for a reason.

  • David D.G.

    Here’s an example of a lesson to be learned from fiction:

    “Rub her feet.”

    ~Robert A. Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

    Seriously, fiction can provide a framework for promoting any philosophy or viewpoint and often make it appear more virtuous, more imperative, or just more simple than it really is.

    Sometimes that philosophy or viewpoint rings true because it actually is true, or at least supports itself with facts and logic.

    Sometimes, however, it’s just a well-written trick on the reader, a sort of con that slips past the reader’s defenses and implants dogma that violate facts and logic but appear to be perfectly sound.

    However, I feel that two issues are being muddled here: (1) the intent of the writer vs. the perceptions of the reader, and (2) the allusion to ideas in fiction, whether promoted by the author or not, or even whether intended by the author or not, as ways to vividly demonstrate those ideas.

    Personally, I think that any interpetation of an author’s works that goes against the author’s stated purposes and/or intentions is automatically invalid. (That’s not a popular stance among my fellow students of literature, but I stand by it.)

    However, I think that it is perfectly okay to point to something in a book as an example of an idea that is good or bad, provided that it be taken in context. Otherwise, it is nothing but an exercise in the fiction-related equivalent of quote mining.

    ~David D.G.

  • Jesse

    Sometimes fiction helps us see a false scenario with less bias than we would normally. One example would be “Dune” whose cynical hero watches legends and later an entire religion form around himself.

    I was too biased to imagine that sort of thing happening during the formation of Christianity, but Dune got past my theological defenses by creating a fictional but analogous situation.

    [edit]This is a different Jesse, not the author of the post[/edit]

  • Miko

    A fictional anecdote should have precisely the same weight as a real anecdote. In both cases, I would suggest that this weight is in most circumstances close to zero. That said, if you lack the empathetic capacity to draw life lessons from fiction, then I pity you.

    No criminal is successful without the willing cooperation of the victim.

    This is a bit too general. Consider the case of someone using armor-piercing bullets to shoot through a wall and kill a random stranger who never leaves her house (for safety reasons of avoiding potential criminals).

  • muggle

    I am so-o-o-o guilty of this.

    Fiction is my first love. I’m a lifelong bookworm and feel deprived if I don’t get a minimum of at least a half hour reading in. I do mean minimum. I’m not really satisified unless I get an hour or more in (not including blogs).

    As I get older, I read a lot more nonfiction. About a third of the books I read are nonfiction and, of course, I get some newsletters and all that are nonfiction. Used to read nothing but fiction but the third nonfiction has been going on for about a dozen years now. Not sure how relevant that is but it seems fair to disclose it in this context.

    I quote books, movies and, yes, songs, all the time. Hell, I even choose a screen name from a fiction context. We were literally watching a Harry Potter movie at home. I’d been using my first name since getting the internet back but wanted something more imaginative. I literally said aloud muggle, that’s perfect, after all, being Atheist I’m certainly a non-magical folk. It might surprise you that my daughter and grandson didn’t quite agree. They say my love and the way it makes me give to them is magical. Shrug.

    I don’t think it really matters all that much if you’re construing the writer’s meaning correctly or not. It’s just a point of reference to jump off on discussion and express ideas, which, after all, is what the writer is attempting to do. A good writer will like that you were moved by it even if you got it all wrong. They meant to stimulate interest in a topic and they did.

    And sometimes, I’m willing to bet they don’t even realize what they are writing in. I used to write a lot of fiction myself before eventually realizing I was pretty good but too rough and unformed and found research too heavy a task. But I wrote a ton of short stories in my teens and I was suicidal in my teens. This was miraculously cured by moving out of my looney-tunes mother’s house after graduating high school.

    The depression lifted like a cloud when the prision doors were set open and I spread my wings and flew but hung on to all those short stories. Well, one of the stories I shoved into a drawer, one I had written my senior year in high school, took out and reread about 10 years later and enjoying my life. It was a rather simple story about conflict between a father and son (both with issues and shoot me, I’m straight, men fascinate me more than women) and my jaw dropped as I read it.

    The two characters so personified my inner turmoil and the war battling within my teen self towards life or death. At the end of this rather trite story, father and son are, of course, reunited and I could see that it symbolized my resolving the conflict in myself and choosing to live. I had no idea at the time that I was writing this into it that I was doing so or even that I had fought through my depression to this point before escaping my mother’s house. It blew my mind.

    The better than average but really not publishable worthy writing tapered off about 10 years ago. I went through a phase of drawing, pencil sketches mostly, just pictures that would come into my head but these days I’m mostly into writing poems and think (I could be wrong) that I’m excelling at them and may work on doing something with them in my pending retirement (or before if I get really lucky).

    Funny thing is, when I was writing fiction, I only wrote an occassional poem and well but thought it had to come to me whole. Now adays I do some editing until it seems right. I’ve grown up. If I publish, and people misinterpret, besides crying all the way to the bank (yeah, right, what would be to cry over in that scenario and poetry doesn’t generally pay well but I’ll have a pension and won’t have to survive on it) and say wow, I’ve got them talking. Me!

    Surely Hemant you must feel this to some extent?

    All that was an extremely long way to say I agree with w00t 100%. It’s communication. Let’s not fear it. Communication is a good thing.

    And I’d better stick to poetry. I do tend to get rather long winded in prose.

  • The Vicar

    That Huxley example is particularly sad given that:

    1. Brave New World isn’t particularly bad, as dystopias go, and Huxley himself admitted this. (See Brave New World Revisited.) In Brave New World the government keeps people reasonably healthy, occupied, and, if not exactly happy, satisfied with their lot. There are far worse things that a dystopian government could do, and in fact far worse things are done by governments in the real world.

    2. The U.S. government under Bush was perfectly willing to contemplate nightmare actions against its own citizens. Indefinite detention without due process? Sure. Unlimited surveilance? Go ahead. Lists of enemies? Can’t see why not. Heck, Halliburton subsidiary KBR even got a contract to build detainment camps around the country. All of that was okay with Bush. But mess with sex, and that scares him. What a pathetic excuse for a human being.

  • Alan E.

    I Always wondered in high school why we had to over analyze novels, my least favorite being The Scarlet Letter. I have still learned many lessons through fiction though. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave me a new perspective on life. I don’t like taking the hidden, literal messages that English majors discover years after the author has died (applies to religious texts too). Hemmingway probably didn’t see “The Old Man and the Sea” as a metaphor.

    I would have done much better in English classes if the focus was only on reading and not reading into texts. Parables and fables have messages. Standard fiction has messages. But it’s what we take as an individual that should matter, not as a direction that will affect many people negatively.

  • Alan E.

    (since it’s hard to edit from the iphone) The section on patterns reminds me a lot of A Beautiful Mind. That guy saw so many connections in his daily life that he began to believe it. We see many mathematical patterns in life that many people feel the need to explain it. The Golden Ratio comes to mind.

  • The Vicar

    I ought to mention: Huxley was in fact about as close as one could get to an authority on techno-dystopia at the time the book was written, contrary to what the original poster said. As you will find in Brave New World Revisited, the book was researched and grounded in what were then considered emerging trends. If anything, it was overly gentle in presentation.

    To return to the subject at hand, though:

    CybrgnX: You are possibly confusing what characters in novels say with what the author intends to say. The two are hardly synonymous. “All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds” was written to mock Leibniz, not as an actual philosophical statement.

    But more generally: why not learn lessons from fiction? Distilling lessons from the real world is tricksy at best. (For one thing, in the real world things are seldom clear-cut. Communism was a failure as an economic model — except that Cuba still seems to be getting along nicely, and of course capitalism has just crashed with consequences which are just as bad as those where communism “failed”. What if communism is only untenable if forced to compete with capitalism, or if capitalism is necessarily unsustainable and we just don’t know it yet because there hasn’t been enough time for a total failure? The world does not have a control group with which we can compare answers.)

    Furthermore, a fictional “lesson” is apt to be more interesting and less ambiguous than one drawn from real life. Fiction can have ideal heros and unmitigated villains, and people who make obviously bad choices for no reason other than to show us what happens. In the real world, even the greatest of heros have flaws, even the worst villains occasionally take a break from making poisoned puppy souffles, and when people make bad decisions it usually means they don’t have enough information or have a compelling motivation to do so. Hard to draw a conclusion from that!

    To close, let me just cite that Ray Bradbury said that his purpose in writing science fiction was not to describe the future, but to prevent it.

  • Huck Finn taught us that it is more important to be moral than to be saved. I doubt Twain could have made that point as effectively outside of fiction.

    Huxley pointing to the danger in the misapplication of certain sciences and technologies was a valid and important lesson. But only a moron would apply that lesson by suppressing all applications of potentially life-saving research.

  • Moxiequz

    No criminal is successful without the willing cooperation of the victim

    It was really interesting and I found out it was true.

    Oh? How exactly did you find out this was true? What exactly does the “willing cooperation” of a victim entail when we’re talking about rape or an armed robbery or a Columbine massacre?

  • One of the ways we experience the world and communicate our experiences of it is through storytelling. Those experiences may be subjective, but that doesn’t mean they are without value. Statistics and scientific facts have their place in our shared knowledge, but so do subjective human experiences.

    Stories are often more successful at engaging our emotional responses and getting us to question beliefs we hold as self-evident. They can pass on knowledge, value-systems, ways of interpreting the world. From myths and legends right down to the modern novel, literature and storytelling work on multiple levels of understanding and interpretation. I don’t think anyone who studies literature would actually argue that the ideas you find in a book should be taken as the unquestionable truth. Literature is just one form of presenting ideas, philosophies, beliefs, discourses, and experiences.

    At the same time, I think we should recognize that science doesn’t exist in a vacuum and can often be influenced by human subjectivity. This can be found in the phenomena scientists choose to study, the ways they study them, and the ways they describe them, among others. For example, some theorists have studied the language scientists use to describe sperm and how this language reinforces traditional notions of masculinity and femininity (ex: the sperm as active, the egg as passive; the sperm as aggressive, the egg as vulnerable…).

    Which leads me to another thing that the study of literature teaches you, which is a critical engagement with language. Language is incredibly powerful in terms of promoting certain ideas and power relations, while keeping them invisible and “natural”. Language is at the very core of our interactions and at the same time shaped by them, so a critical understanding of the way it functions really doesn’t hurt, especially in a globalized society, where advertising is becoming more and more prevalent.

    So, all my pedantry aside, studying literature at a high school and university level isn’t just about the particular message of the text under study, although that has its value too. It’s also about teaching important skills. It’s a different way of engaging with the world than one finds in scientific fields, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Lynet

    “No lessons from fiction?” I have to disagree. Sure, you can’t infer facts about the world from a convincing fictional account in the same way that you could from factual data, but you can definitely learn lessons. For example, you can learn compassion for people who are in a situation that you had not heretofore considered — or you can notice that the fictional situation outlined acts as a possible counterexample to a belief that you previously held. Fiction can also be a way of giving shape to an idea, helping you to consider it more clearly. So I disagree with your title and I think you should try to find a more accurate statement of your position.

  • Pseudonym

    Fiction is the mechanism by which humans engage in social and philosophical thought experiments. Scientists like sci fi is not just because they like reading about people like themselves, but because it is the means by which the social implications of scientific advances are worked out.

  • I’d say that you can learn lessons from fiction. The difficulty is in justifying those lessons. For example, fiction is pretty good at teaching compassion (as Lynet said), but that’s because the justifications for compassion are already so obvious. People just need to be made to think about it, and they’ll become more compassionate.

    But the place where fiction is especially flawed, is in arguments from consequences. Person A performs action X, is rewarded. Person B does action Y, is punished. Therefore, X is good and Y is bad. Okay, but how do we know that person A would be rewarded in real life, and person B would be punished?

    You know what I learned from fiction the other day? If we continue domesticating animals, they’re eventually going to conquer us in the animal revolution. That’s what we get for playing gods!

  • Azide

    “But even if we infer the particular message intended by the author, we need to be careful not to give it too much weight.”

    In other words, it’s bad to treat fiction as non-fiction. This seems to be your thesis, and I would agree with that. Then, you arrive at a conclusion that is almost non sequitorial. Do you seriously believe you can’t learn from the way someone else views the world? That’s almost sociopathic.

    Literary criticism isn’t about finding “hidden truth,” and anyone who claims otherwise is woefully misinformed. I defer to Milena above who explains this much better (and kinder) that I could. Still, it’s good to see how little you think of other academic fields.

  • Naevius

    Wow. That’s really just a disturbing worldview. As a humanities major, writer of fiction, and lover of literature in general I am more than a little bit upset. Let me try and treat this as rationally as I can.

    First of all, the valid pattern is that the author intended. I understand that the post-modernists believe otherwise; it’s ridiculous. I had a friend in college who wrote about how Ovid’s Metamorphoses related to to WWI.

    One problem: Ovid was an ancient Roman.

    My friend was genuinely upset when I told her that her interpretation of the work was wrong. Just because it’s a humanity doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. Ovid did not write about World War One!

    Now, as to the importance of fiction? I think that it is far more important than the natural sciences. That may seem ridiculous: physics, chemistry, and biology lets people to lead better lives.

    But fiction lets people be people.

    Full disclosure: that’s sort of paraphrasing something Terry Pratchett said. Oh well.

    What I mean is: culture is what makes people human. Even if there is no political message in a work, that doesn’t make it unimportant! Even if it’s a negative or harmful political message in a book, that doesn’t make it bad! Stories are valuable as stories, and as art. They make people feel, think, act on a higher level. That has value. Creativity has value. People, have value. Even fictional people. Would the world be worse off without Bilbo Baggins, without Jane Eyre, without Sherlock Holmes or Achilles? Significantly so.

    As to the subject of studying literature in high school and college: it is phenomenally important. What people get confused about, however, is why it’s important. Sure, it’s nice for people to have an appreciation of the classics, but for most people is it really going to matter if you can tell Dostoevsky from Tolstoy?

    Honestly, no.

    What’s important is that students gain the critical thinking, reading, and writing skills required to succeed in any field.

    Now back to what I was talking about at the beginning. Perhaps I’ve read your post wrong. It was unfortunately vague. However, the title is “No Lessons From Fiction,” and it seems to be an attack on fiction in general as having value.

    That is highly disturbing in, frankly, an Orwellian 1984-esque sense. Because fiction can promote–and does promote–viewpoints opposite from your own, and can do so in a powerful and effective manner, it is dangerous and any right-thinking person should not listen to it. It’s something I’d expect to hear from Glenn Beck, maybe, or maybe someone even crazier.

    The best fiction, in the end, is good because it is fundamentally true: because it says something about humans and about society and about people in general that people in general can basically connect to. Does it have to be as simple as an Aesop’s fable: “don’t steal” or something? Of course not. The Hero/Quest story has been told a million times because it’s about bravery, overcoming challenges, and strength of character.

    Ultimately, I think the place where I disagree with you the most is right in the middle. After the Terry Pratchett quote (which made me even more upset–how dare you misuse such a great author? sheesh!) where you said all that stuff about true love not conquering all and unpleasant people living happy lives and the like?

    That, perhaps, disturbed me the most: because I think it contributes to a powerful and dangerous stereotype. That is, the atheist not as humanist, but as nihilist. As pessimist.

    I believe in no supernatural power: no god, no spirit, no prophet. I don’t believe in aliens, ghosts, or riki healing. I support the scientific method and the logical pursuit of knowledge. Irrationality, I think, is a terrible thing.

    Equally terrible, however, is nihilism. And nihilism is terrible because it’s wrong.

    People are, in fact, generally good at heart. Usually they try to do what they think is right. In 99% of cases, true love does win out over all. Not all the time, but close enough for government work. The very existence of human society is evidence of this fact! Every day, millions of people wake up in the morning and don’t strangle their neighbor. Frankly I don’t think they would even if they could. Aren’t we all proof of that? No heaven or hell holding us back, but no atheist I knows just goes and stabs people. Maybe it’s self interest, but maybe it’s not. This intricate web of human relationships and conversation and existence together exists because people do have the ability to be kind, they do have the ability to be good, and they do have the ability to love.

    That is at least my interpretation of humanism. Maybe I’m ridiculous, maybe I’m as bad as the jesus-freaks, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. I don’t think anyone has a purpose or any nonsense like that, I don’t think that bad things don’t happen for any reason at all, I just think that, as a whole, life is worth living, people are good, and things’ll probably work out in the end

    I don’t know. Maybe I’ve read too much fiction.

    I’ve been a subscriber to this blog from almost the beginning, but I’m not sure that I can continue to do so in good conscience.

    Best of luck,

  • I was too taken aback at what basically amounted to a backhand at what I do and love (whether it was intentional or not) to come up with something coherent.

    So just pretend I said what Milena and Naevius said and leave it at that.

  • As a rule of thumb, I think that deliberately didactic fiction is bad fiction. And when you take good fiction — Moby Dick, War and Peace, and so on — and read it with the intent of teasing out clear hidden lessons, then you turn good fiction into bad. Many high school English classes stand in testament to this rule of thumb.

    (Science fiction often breaks or bends the rule; we’ll often forgive a trite plot and cardboard characters for the sake of a really cool idea. But SF with good characters is always better than than SF with bad characters.)

    So here’s my other rule of thumb: I think that fiction should be read as art. The pleasure of language is like the pleasure of music. Inhabiting the head of a great character or a great scene is like admiring an enthralling painting. Riding with a wonderful plot is like absorbing a wonderful dance. Fiction allows you to live lives, feel emotions, think thoughts, and enjoy (or suffer) experiences that you’d never have dreamed up on your own.

    The bits that stick with you may help you become more yourself. They may help you grow. They may remind you that what you think you know about the people around you ain’t necessarily so.

    And on top of all that, maybe the writer also has some really cool ideas.

  • As a writer of fiction, I feel that it can be a tool to teach lessons. A fictional story can illustrate an idea more vividly than a dry essay.

    If there are no lessons, then why have so many been moved by the works of Ayn Rand, Orwell, Huxley?

    Any essay or non-fiction work can give a slanted view of an argument. Why should fiction be singled out as bad?

    If you don’t like that you to think about a work to understand it, too bad. More people should think about what they read and see, instead of blindly accepting it.

    Like others have written, fiction can be entertaining, it can illustrate an argument, and it can teach us about another prospective.

    I’d much rather live in a world with fiction, than a world with only non-fiction. Heck, we can have a world with both types of writing.

  • AxeGrrl

    Naevius wrote:

    First of all, the valid pattern is that the author intended. I understand that the post-modernists believe otherwise; it’s ridiculous. I had a friend in college who wrote about how Ovid’s Metamorphoses related to to WWI.

    One problem: Ovid was an ancient Roman.

    My friend was genuinely upset when I told her that her interpretation of the work was wrong. Just because it’s a humanity doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. Ovid did not write about World War One!

    I wholeheartedly disagree. Just because certain parallels between a work of fiction and something else may not have been ‘intended’ by the author doesn’t mean it’s invalid for a reader to relate to them and/or find something relevant/meaningful there.

    Having said that, I agree that it would be inaccurate to say ‘Ovid wrote about WWI’, but I don’t think it would be invalid for someone to claim to find parallels between the 2 things. Hell, that’s one of the things that makes great works of fiction great, imo.

    I have a great little anecdote for this thread: my grade 7th English teacher told us about an assignment he’d given some previous class ~ to produce something artistic (a writing, music or art piece) that embodied the theme of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. One kid brought in a cover of ‘Time’ magazine that he’d put a fold (wrinkle) in; it was the cover featuring the Three Mile Island story. The teacher was impressed with its simplicity, etc and was going to mark it……but before he did, purely out of his own curiousity, he asked the student: ‘how did you pick the magazine cover?’ and the student said: ‘my mom had a big pile of Time magazines and I just picked the first one off the top of the pile’.

    At that, we asked the teacher: ‘so, what mark did you give him?’ and the teacher said: ‘an A+. I couldn’t give him anything else.’

    The kid, purely by chance, picked the 3 Mile Island image, but that choice made the work as resonant as it was. If a viewer responds to that resonance, could you say that that response is ‘invalid’ because the student didn’t ‘intend’ it?

    I firmly believe that if a reader of a book or viewer of a film finds themes/metaphors that ‘work’ in a legitimate way (even if it’s not necessarily what the author/filmmaker intended) then it’s valid. If the artist so desperately doesn’t want the reader to find ‘other meanings’, then they’d better make damn sure they snuff out those other possibilities……but why on earth do that? why limit a work that could have even more resonance than the author intended?

  • Eskomo

    If a viewer responds to that resonance, could you say that that response is ‘invalid’ because the student didn’t ‘intend’ it?

    So Aldous Huxley wrote about hatcheries for breeding humans, and stem cell research was stopped in the U.S. Would Aldous Huxley have wanted that? How could he write his story to prevent Jay Lefkowitz from interpreting it this way?

  • I have to join in the dissent from Jesse’s claim in the original post.

    While fiction doesn’t give us insight in the same way that science does, well-written fiction can help us to understand the human condition in a valuable, subjective sense. (This doesn’t work, as Marvin said, if it’s didactic: if the author is trying to directly teach the reader some fact about people. For all I love his books, Heinlein seems occasionally to slip into this.)

  • “Huxley has no particular authority on the subject. ”
    I do not know about authority, but Huxley was was uncommonly knowledgeable about biology.

  • Azide

    So Aldous Huxley wrote about hatcheries for breeding humans, and stem cell research was stopped in the U.S. Would Aldous Huxley have wanted that? How could he write his story to prevent Jay Lefkowitz from interpreting it this way?

    You still seem to be under the impression that literary analysis is either an attempt to guess what the author “really” meant, what the “real” truth behind the piece is, or else anything goes. Simply moving away from the authors intent doesn’t mean that any interpretation is supportable.

    Huxley couldn’t idiot-proof his book, nor should we expect him to. To say literary analysis as a whole is wrong because a few people who aren’t good at it (note the audience to whom he was speaking) misuse it suit their own purposes is an argument I don’t think we really want to start making. Don’t we call people fools when they say this about science?

  • AxeGrrl

    Azide wrote:

    Huxley couldn’t idiot-proof his book, nor should we expect him to. To say literary analysis as a whole is wrong because a few people who aren’t good at it (note the audience to whom he was speaking) misuse it suit their own purposes is an argument I don’t think we really want to start making.


    Artists have little or no control over their work and how others respond to it. That’s simply a fact of how ‘art’ works ~ I realize that that must drive some control-freak writers crazy, but that’s the undeniable reality.

    Eskomo wrote:

    So Aldous Huxley wrote about hatcheries for breeding humans, and stem cell research was stopped in the U.S. Would Aldous Huxley have wanted that?

    Whatever ‘potential repurcussions’ Huxley may or may not have approved of are irrelevant. Do you think the Beatles were thrilled when Manson and his gang scrawled ‘Helter Skelter’ in blood on the LaBianca refrigerator?

    Once an artist puts a work ‘out there’ they no longer have any power over how the public engages with it ~ and moreover, artists have no control over how history will unfold, which has a huge influence on how people react to their work.

    If you’re an artist, you have to accept these realities even if you don’t like them. It’s as simple as that.

    The only ‘invalid’ thing, imo, would be to try to attach one’s very specific interpretation to the artist him/herself, when we either don’t know if the artist would agree or there’s evidence to suggest that they wouldn’t.

    Manson saying the song ‘Blackbird’ is about black people rising up and taking over society could be seen as a viable interpretation ~ but if he said that Paul wrote it with that intention is something completely different.

  • AxeGrrl

    Timothy Mills wrote:

    While fiction doesn’t give us insight in the same way that science does, well-written fiction can help us to understand the human condition in a valuable, subjective sense. (This doesn’t work, as Marvin said, if it’s didactic: if the author is trying to directly teach the reader some fact about people

    Great point!

    and it reminds me of a rather heated debate I got into about the film ‘Birth’ starring Nicole Kidman. One poster wrote that the filmmakers were ‘irresponsible’ because they didn’t inject a strong enough ‘pedophilia is wrong’ message in the film ~ I responded that it’s not an artist’s/filmmaker’s responsibility to offer something ‘morally prescriptive‘ in their work. Their only responsibility is to illuminate the human condition; the good, bad and ugly.

  • 3D

    Yeah, I have a little trouble buying the Bush anecdote. Number one, I have a hard time believing Bush had any input into those decisions in the first place.

    But two, and more importantly, these guys had an agenda that was carved in stone about stem cell research. They’re against it. It’s a sop to the ridiculous fundies who helped put them in office, and it also helps keep horrible diseases around which the pharmaceutical industry loves because it keeps money rolling in. They weren’t going to pivot on a dime and suddenly support stem cell research if someone read Bush the right bedtime story. Sounds like fluff to me.

  • Christophe Thill

    I had never heard about this Lefkowitz. But I admire the man. He’s a genius. He raises mental manipulation to the status of art.

  • Fiction primarily exists to entertain. If we learn anything from entertainment then this is surely a bonus.

    with one of my favorite fantasy authors, Robert Jordan…what lessons can we and should we learn from fiction?

    Don’t start reading a 15 part series of books until you know that the author isn’t going to die before finishing them.

  • GullWatcher

    Discussing this as “analyzing works of fiction” makes it sound like it’s something people do in classrooms and book clubs, when the reality is that this is something we all do every day. We tell ourselves, and each other, stories.

    People love stories, they much prefer them to facts. That’s the reason for the popularity of the right-wing-nuts like Limbaugh and Beck – they tell people stories that show them the world the way they either hope or fear it is. That’s why controlling the story is such a focus of people in power and people who want to be in power. That’s how you get people’s hearts, minds, and imaginations: you tell them stories.

    “Change the story, change the world.”

    – Terry Pratchett, “Wintersmith”

  • nerdiah

    “The world is full of brave soldiers who die, true love that does not conquer all, and unpleasant people who go on to enjoy long, happy lives.”

    It’s so atheist to make an observation like that 🙂

  • Eric

    It’s called the Logical Fallacy of Generalizing from Fictional Evidence.

    Also, the thing about the palace guard made me think of The Sword of Good.

  • Lefkowitz (and those like him) and Bush (and those like him, and those that like him) should be criticized, not fiction itself.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    What an odd, half-baked attack on literature.

    This is just a verbose way of saying, “don’t believe everything that you read.” Thanks for the original thought there!

  • Amen GullWatcher!

    Like it or not, people learn more from the emotional impact of stories than from dry facts and figures. Although I agree about the BS of over analyzing fiction in high school English courses, I do think there is a lot of truth in fiction, most of it truth about the emotional and psychological state of human beings.

  • Anna

    I’m a fiction writer. I became one after reading some fictional stories that inspired me to be a better person, and to think logically about my world. I find this post sort of sad, but not offensive. I do think studying works for ‘hidden meanings’ is simply someone being bored and then wanting to share what they ‘find’ (read : make up). This is just me.

  • Frank Herbert taught me that fear is the mind-killer and the little death that brings total obliteration. 😉

    I think fiction, including my favorite fiction genre – scifi, is best at spurring our imaginations and getting us to examine ourselves and our ideas. Basing real-world decisions on fictional world events is silly (and as Jesse pointed out, sometimes harmful), but fiction authors (good ones, anyway) are great at provoking thoughtful self-examination.

  • I’ve always considered the “fiction-as-didacticism” school of thought to be kinda myopic. Not all fiction writers are trying to be Aesop.

    So what’s the “point” of fiction? I don’t know. What’s the “point” of science? Science is a tool that lets you examine the world objectively, tease out the hidden mechanisms of atoms and gravity and what have you. I guess I’ve always approached fiction as a tool too, to try to examine the world subjectively. Maybe I’ll get inspired or be revolted or fall in love with a character or see some parallel in the narrative to something I’ve experienced in my own life. After all, human beings are always trying to construct coherent internal narratives to make sense of their lives. In that sense, we’re all fiction writers.

  • absent sway

    Thank you, Milena! Spot-on! Literature is a powerful, valuable tool for provoking thought and expressing ideas in new, unexpected, and sometimes more accessible ways. Stories are such a big part of how humans understand the world. It’s important to question the author’s ideas, motives, language, etc. but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from someone you disagree with (and in my opinion, if one is not taught and does not practice engaging with works of literature in a deep way, one is more liable to reactions like Bush’s to “Brave New World”). Certainly fiction should be analyzed and not just placed on a pedestal; that’s why we learn to analyze it. As a tool for thought, it can be used for good or for evil or for anything in between, skillfully or clumsily, and sometimes it’s just a tool for entertainment.

  • Aj

    I get concepts and ideas from books, many of them from Terry Pratchett’s 30+ Discworld novels. The problem is not that the ideas come from fiction but that they have no relation with reality, it’s the slippery slope logical fallacy. Also, the technology proposed is purely fictional, which makes anyone fearing it fantasists.

  • Heidi

    Manson saying the song ‘Blackbird’ is about black people rising up and taking over society could be seen as a viable interpretation ~ but if he said that Paul wrote it with that intention is something completely different.

    I have to disagree. Those two statements say the same thing to me. If the author disagrees with you when you say “this is what it’s about,” then you’re not the one who’s right. Now if Charlie had said “this is what I got out of it” that would be a different thing.

    To say “this is what it’s about” is subjective means that I can say Mary Had a Little Lamb is about celebrity stalkers, and it’s as valid as someone saying “um, it’s about a little kid and her pet.”

  • monkeymind

    This post made me laugh quite a lot.

    Do people really think that the whole of literature is some gigantic employment project where novelists take a set of “meanings” capable of being written on a post-it note and understood by callow middle-class American teenagers, and obscure them in a mountain of text so that high-school English teachers can be employed to force students to mine the text for the hidden nuggets of meaning?

    OK, I’m not laughing now, because I see where the idea comes from and it makes me sad that school has murdered literature for so many.

    Try Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel”.

  • Karen

    The world is full of brave soldiers who die, true love that does not conquer all, and unpleasant people who go on to enjoy long, happy lives.

    I hate to break it to you, but fiction is full of all that, too. “Fiction” is a huge general category and fictional works do not exclusively incorporate happy endings, romance and flowers.

    There are plenty of broken hearts, cheaters who prosper and dead soldiers in works of literature, as well as insightful commentary on the human condition that we don’t get outside of art.

    I really have to wonder just how much fiction (not just sci-fi) you’ve read if you don’t understand that.

  • gmcfly

    I feel like fiction can even be harmful. Like how romantic comedies distort the idea of love into a sappy “at first sight” event, and gloss over the hard work and mundane daily chores of making a relationship work.

    But good fiction presents the world the way the author sees it. It may be realistic, or not, but it is another person’s point of view. And that’s valuable in itself.

    You read it to discover the authors.

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